Northampton council may give mayor power to change health insurance benefits
NORTHAMPTON — The City Council may take a final vote tonight on a measure that would give the mayor authority to make changes in health insurance benefits offered to employees, possibly leading to substantial cost savings for the city.
The proposal was met with opposition at the council’s last meeting from the leader of the Northampton Association of School Employees, the city’s largest union. President Sharon Carlson argued that the move would circumvent the collective bargaining process.
The meeting begins with public comment at 7 p.m. in the Council Chambers of the Puchalski Municipal Building, followed by the regular meeting.
A year ago, the state adopted a municipal health insurance reform law allowing local governments to update or change health insurance plans up to the same level that state employees receive.
Public-employee unions across the state initially balked at the idea because they thought it took away too much of their collective bargaining power and would unfairly punish vulnerable employees like retirees and the sick with higher out-of-pocket costs.
A compromise gave local unions a more input, provided some cost savings for retired workers and restricted municipalities to making only “cost-sharing” changes to how health plans are structured.
Mayor David J. Narkewicz would like to explore the idea of cost-sharing in Northampton in hopes that it would help deal with soaring health insurance costs. Those costs have escalated to more than $10 million this fiscal year, compared to $6 million a decade ago.
The council approved the measure at its Sept. 20 meeting, but acknowledged the possibility that it could postpone a vote on final reading tonight if concerns brought forth by Ward 1 City Councilor Maureen T. Carney were not addressed.
Carney expressed reservations about the proposal, urging the mayor to take a more proactive approach to discussing the idea with union leaders.
Narkewicz said he hosted a meeting with all union leaders Tuesday to explain the changes.
“I did follow through with what I told the council I would do,” he said.
If the council approves the local health insurance option tonight, Narkewicz would have the authority to start the investigative process. That would include studying whether to move into the state’s Group Insurance Commission, something the teachers union has opposed in the past. Carney said the bargaining units are concerned that the measure would allow the city to unilaterally move into the GIC.
Narkewicz told the council that the city could only enter the GIC if it can demonstrate that doing so would mean 10 percent savings in health insurance costs, or some $1 million.
He noted that while the process would give the city more control of plan design changes — co-pays and deductibles, for example — the city still needs to show how any plan can save money and mitigate the impact on employees.
Unions would have a role in the discussion. Narkewicz has said the city would first prepare a proposal that outlines specific design plan changes, as well as what the GIC might offer.
The proposal then goes through a 30-day review period by a new Public Employee Committee that includes representatives from each bargaining unit, retirees and the city’s Insurance Advisory Commission. The plans must show that 25 percent of the first-year savings are shared with employees.
If an agreement can’t be reached, a three-member review panel is formed to come to a decision. That panel includes a city representative, a representative of the Public Employee Committee and a third party named by the state.